Buoyed by the return of junior forward/center Mike Barr to the lineup, the Longhorn boys basketball team upset highly regarded Tuba City 58-53 Saturday evening in Wilson Dome.
Sidelined since the football season with a knee injury, Barr returned to the lineup to play limited minutes. He finished with eight points, but gave the Horns a strong presence underneath the basket.
Nick Cassuto led the Horn offense with 10 points.
In the stirring victory, Payson jumped to an early 12-8 lead and went on to build a 31-22 halftime cushion.
Although the Warriors outscored the Longhorns 31-27 in the second half, the lead Payson built in the first two quarters was too much for Tuba City to overcome.
The good news for the Horns is Barr's recovery. With the 6-foot-7-inch, 230-pound Barr back in the lineup, the Longhorns will be better prepared to battle on even terms with East teams -- like Snowflake.
At the conclusion of last season, when Barr was just a sophomore, coach Mike Loutzenheiser said he was the best big man in the region.
During the next two months of East region play, Barr will have the opportunity to prove that assessment.
To be successful in the region, however, the Longhorns need a well-rounded team effort and a rock-solid defense that can keep Payson in the game when the offense is not clicking.
Among the players who have stepped up in the early season are Derek Daniels, Kyle Hubbard, Jake Swartwood, Chris Donaldson and Nicky Cassuto.
At the Eastern Arizona College Invitational Dec. 26 and 27 in Thatcher, Daniels and Hubbard were named to the all-tournament team after helping lead the Horns to a third-place finish.
The coach also praised Daniels for his spirited play in the Matador Invitational held in early December.
"He played very hard and gave us some great leadership," the coach said.
Most of the season, Cassuto -- who plays forward -- has been the Longhorns leading scorer. His best game might have been a 23-point outing in a win over El Centro, Calif.
Although the Horns have received some solid individual efforts, the team is at its best when all five players on the floor are contributing.
For example, Payson breezed to a win over Class 4A Mohave when Cassuto, Daniels, Donaldson and Swartwood were scoring and defending. Cassuto had 13 points, Daniels scored 12, Donaldson chipped in with 10 and Swartwood tallied six.
Since the team's return from the EAC tournament, Loutzenheiser has had his charges on the Wilson Dome floor each morning practicing for the upcoming East season.
With the Horns set to play two and three games a week for the next two months, those might have been the final opportunities the coach had for all-out sessions.
The preliminaries, which included two tournaments and seven nonregion contests, are now history.
It's time for the real games to begin.